By Juliet Coombe
As my Morris Minor car drives through giant puddles left over from the previous day’s torrential rains, I am relieved to see the sun rise through the stormy clouds and the first rays of light reveal a picturesque lagoon, where old men throw their fishing nets in the air chewing on betel nut and drinking sweet tea from a flask.
Little boats bob on the water either side of the causeway and ox-drawn carts pass me with the stately grandeur of an ancient world.
Only matched by fit looking old guys riding bicycles with huge loads of wood tied to the back of the saddles to be sold in Jaffna old town, where the Dutch Fort is being restored, houses full of bullet holes are still reminders of Asia’s longest war.
From time to time a red coloured Indian bus passes by carrying Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims to Nainatheevu/Nagadipa island, where naga snake statues hide in the grass from ancient times. So don’t be afraid or surprised when buying a drink or a snack that there will be several of them lurking in the darkness.
Historic temple retreat
To get to the islands you go by the pretty blue and painted ferryboats anchored at Kurikadduwan docks. If you are friends with the army they may from time to time help out if they are delivering supplies. Old timers, monks and pilgrims sit waiting for the daily boat, talking in hushed venerated whispers about this historic temple retreat which as an island once had a population of 10,000 people, who left during the war years.
After boarding the boat covered in hand painted flowers complete with a shrine to Ganesh and offerings to the sea, I sit down on the bench and pay just a few rupees for the privilege of a 20-30 minute ferry ride. Sun seekers sit on the roof and pilgrims exchange stories of their travels.
Sadly, I discover from the boat guy that the number of inhabitants on Nainatheevu has dwindled to less than a thousand people and the remaining few is either working in the temple or kovil. Some of the people in the boats are returning – in some cases for the first time in decades to see their ancestral homes, and it’s clear from their eyes the love they hold for the island.
Arriving through the choppy waters to see the oldest Tamil temple in Jaffna: Nainatheevu Sri Nagapooshani Amman is more than stunning with its colourful kovil’s red and white stripes appearing like a rainbow out of the mist. It’s midday and I am invited by the priests to enjoy the delicious vegetarian food that is served at 1pm every lunchtime at this temple city like complex. It is presented on banana leaves with island-grown red rice and fresh Jaffna vegetables.
Hindu women in particular flock to the temple from all over Sri Lanka with little boxes, some with a miniature doll inside, others with handwritten notes folded into small pieces and others covered in ribbons of sari fabric. Each one carries a wish to conceive a child, in a twisted piece of material that always contains a coin to thank the sacred Naga serpent temple of Meenakshi, who is closely related to Shiva, giver of fertility rites.
These boxes are hung ceremonially outside on the temple tree overlooking the main entrance gate to the left of where you go in. After more prayers the women smash coconuts to complete the ceremonial wishes asking for fertility rites and a blessing on their families.
Listening to the orchestra of instruments from within I also discover there is a major 18-day Hindu temple festival in June when thousands flock to the island; getting a boat seat is near impossible.
The temple Sri Naga Pooshani Amman is a few minutes from where the ferry boat lands daily and either side of the temple, little stalls sell island nuts, shells and coconuts. Inside the temple grounds pilgrims put a red dot on their foreheads if they are married before entering the inner temple to listen to the large drum and oboe being played accompanied by bells and trumpet music to celebrate the day’s most sacred pooja.
Wandering around barefoot clockwise I discover there are many things to see in the temple from the sacred well to a small museum, a library with history and philosophy books, a carving centre with Indian workers and a large dining area with rolled up palmyrah mats that are put out everyday to serve lunch to temple pilgrims.
Walking through this temple complex which seems more like a town I learn more about the other islands, in particular Delft, with its wild ponies. To see this rather bleak and surreal outpost with coral rock fencing and a place more like Scotland than a northern outpost of Jaffna seems like a dream after decades of it being shut off from the rest of the world.
After a blessing and making a donation to the temple I return to the sea, where the waves are now higher than the boat and pray I make it back safely for a cream tea in Jaffna courtesy: LakbimaNews